By Theresa Nicholson and Carmen Herrero, Manchester Metropolitan University
Welcome to our contribution for the Active Learning SIG Blog in which we share our aspirations and strategy for developing an institution-wide Active Learning Community of Practice (ALCoP). A key aim is to foster engagement with active learning, and in this post we will explain the context for our activity and steps we have begun to put into place. Hopefully, this will spark your interest sufficiently to take part in a webinar we will be running in May, when we will report on tangible progress towards realising our ALCoP aspirations and discuss some of the challenges and opportunities along the way.
Manchester Met’s new Education Strategy commits to a future-focused and co-created approach to learning, with transformative active learning at its heart (Figure 1). Research shows that active learning is effective, but multiple surveys have also shown that active learning is what students want. It also engenders the range of future-thinking competencies and skills that employers seek.
The Challenge: Creating Momentum
Our institutional commitment to delivering education with transformational active learning at its heart is a laudable aspiration. We acknowledge, however, that many individuals and teaching teams are already achieving this at a local level. A significant challenge is in capturing the wide and varied innovative practice that already exists, and using this to help galvanise, drive and guide momentum for much wider engagement and implementation.
In a large and complex institution such as ours, success requires commitment at all levels; top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out. We believe that building an institution-wide, strategic Active Learning Community of Practice (ALCoP) is one of the keys to achieving this. We now outline three mechanisms we are using to help realise our ambitious aspirations; (1) establishing leadership, (2) seeking out the innovators, and (3) building our active learning community.
Mechanism #1: Establishing Leadership
Under the leadership of Professor Mark Peace, a team of Education Innovation Scholars have been appointed in cross-institutional roles to empower innovation and to drive forward the implementation our university’s thematic priorities (Table 1). We, Theresa and Carmen, lead the Active Learning strand, but of course we recognise the inevitable intersections between themes and work closely with the other theme leads.
Table 1: Institutional thematic priorities with aligned Innovation Scholars and CoPs
|Active, experiential and skills-based learning
|Active Learning (ALCoP)
|Authentic and flexible assessment
|Enterprise and entrepreneurship
|SIG linked to ALCoP
|Digital fluencies (staff-focused)
|SIG ‘Digital Me’
|Belonging and mattering
|Belonging and Mattering CoP
|Closing experience and outcomes gaps
In this short video, you can see our Innovation Scholars outlining key aspirations for the delivery of these aspects of the Education Strategy.
Mechanism #2: Seeking Out the Innovators
With thematic leadership in place, our first task was to unearth and connect those individuals and partnerships who are passionate about active learning and already doing great innovation. To this end we brainstormed multiple sources, building up a database of individuals including those connected with institutional innovation and leadership schemes, as well as contributors to our last learning and teaching conference. To these, many were added from anecdotal sources. Conversations with some 70 or more individuals and small teams thus far has captured some amazing exemplars of transformative active learning and enabled us to begin identifying some of the key themes (Figure 2) that may ultimately form part of our institutional signature pedagogy.
Mechanism #3: Building Our Active Learning Community
We have been buoyed by the modesty of some of our ‘finds’ and through witnessing their delight at our ‘discovery’ of their work. This affords new opportunities for raising their profile and the visibility of their practice. We are finding that the mere fact of opening up a dialogue about active learning is beginning to create some momentum. To help capture this, we have established a MS Teams space to keep the conversation going, and this will provide a valuable mechanism for communication as the Active Learning Community of Practice (ALCoP) begins to grow.
Intentions for ALCoP…..
So what exactly is a community of practice (CoP)? Well, Wenger-Trayner et al. (2023, p. 11) say:
“Communities of practice are group(s) of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”Wenger-Trayner, E., Wenger-Trayner, B., Reid, P. and Bruderlein, B. (2023). Communities of Practice Within and Across organisations: A Guidebook. Social Learning Lab: Portugal. Online at: https://www.wenger-trayner.com/cop-guidebook/
And how do we envisage ALCoP developing? Experience shows that CoPs work best when they develop organically and are resistant to hierarchies and formal regulation. That said, some formality is necessary for resourcing, and for promoting engagement. CoPs can be described in terms of their domain, community, and practice and we use these to explain our intentions and aspirations for ALCoP:
Domain (what is it about?)
ALCoP will bring together those passionate about innovative, active, experiential and skills-based learning. Two Special Interest groups (SIGs) have already been identified; (1) Enterprise, and (2) Education for Sustainable Development, but the others may emerge organically. The exact focus will be determined by members, but ALCoP will be well-placed to explore the potential for institution-wide practices, such as:
- Adoption of active learning models such as SCALE-UP, TREC, or Enquiry-Based Learning.
- Strengthened integration of our co-curricular RISE programme.
- A digital portfolio for supporting and showcasing students’ professional development.
Community (who will be involved?)
ALCoP will be a self-organising, staff-led, democratic, and distributive venture. We envisage that members come from all spheres of university life, including academics, professional services colleagues (e.g. technical services, student support roles), and students.
Practice (what will we do?)
ALCoP will serve several crucial goals. For example, it will:
- Catalyse broad institutional dialogue around active learning
- Drive forward momentum and influence university policy and practice
- Collaborate, curate and connect around good practice in active learning
- Be an enabler for good ideas, providing a network of peer support
- Support professional development of staff and students
Practically, ALCoP will have regular meetings, host activities and events, create and share good practice resources, oversee pilot studies, and evaluate and disseminate outcomes.
In the near future, the university is hosting two internal ‘soap box’ events around active learning and authentic assessment to begin to scope a signature pedagogy. These conversations will continue afterwards in our ALCoP, supported by the MS Teams space and regular meetings, and early outcomes will be presenting for discussion at our summer learning and teaching conference.
Maintaining momentum and continuity over time presents challenges for any community of practice. However, we have learned that one of the reasons for the great success of our longstanding EdTech CoP is the flat hierarchy of its distributed leadership model. Here, the formal CoP leadership is strongly scaffolded by a tight-knit team of highly committed, passionate expert actors who contribute significantly to agenda-setting and decision-making. Given in time, we aspire to steer the development of ALCoP along comparable lines.
Our Aspirations and Success Measures
Given our over-arching purpose to implement aspects of our education strategy, success will be measured from a growing institutional reputation for producing confident, highly skilled graduates, equipped as global citizens who will make a valued and lasting contribution to society. We have some specific aspirations; to curate and create enabling resources (e.g. a multimedia active learning resource, an open education collection of active learning practices at Manchester Met), and to embed Education for Sustainable Development, incorporating transformational active learning, in every programme.
Finally, An Invitation…..
We will be hosting a follow-up ALT-C Active Learning SIG webinar in May where we will update you on progress and share and discuss some of our experiences thus far. We can also look at opening some of our soapbox events to external participation and you are warmly invited to join in the discussion around this. Meanwhile, if you’d like to ask questions or have any comments please get in touch with Theresa at email@example.com or Carmen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Our work as Education Innovation Scholars is part of a wider university initiative overseen by Professor Mark Peace (Director of Education Innovation and Initiatives, Centre for Learning Enhancement and Educational Development), and facilitated by his team, and to them all we offer our grateful thanks.